CORVALLIS — With a rich and filling tapestry, The Stolen Sweets more than live up to their decadently criminal name. Theirs is a jazz of a simpler era, before breathless bombasm punched it through wartime canteens, before improvisation involved wandering into prickly thickets of avant-garde.
No, this is late-night speakeasy velvet, propelled by an ever-steady guitar gait reminiscent of Django Reinhardt and a soothing, seamless vocal blanker capable of warming hearts and gullets aplenty. It’s a jazz that can match you sloe gin for sloe gin, yet remain untouchably resplendent in a poured-on blood-red dress.
The Stolen Sweets are uptown yowza, eternal. So it’s only fitting that the sextet took form in Portland, a metropolitan cauldron of musical eurekas.
It began in 2004 as a project for guitarist Pete Krebs, whom longtime Northwest music aficionados may recall from ’90s alt-rockers Hazel and as a longtime associate of the late Elliott Smith, and Jason Okamoto, another frequent collaborator who played with Krebs in the gypsy-jazz-flavored Kung Pao Chicken. Both had the notion to unite Reinhardt’s sound with that of the Boswell Sisters, an influential vocal trio from the 1930s (no Boswells, no Andrews) that charmed a trail from New Orleans through New York and beyond with harmonies wrapped so tight you couldn’t trap a cat’s claw in a caught breath.
Okamoto ultimately bowed out, leaving Krebs to shape the lineup. He enlisted friend and vocalist Lara Michell to corral the main singers; enter Erin Sutherland and Jen Bernard. Krebs’ rhythm section was completed with the addition of guitarist David Langenese and bassist Keith Brush. From these disparate parts, gathered to fuse two disparate styles of jazz, The Stolen Sweets were born.
Langenese remembers the education he received when he joined the band.
“I didn’t know anything about either (the Boswells or Django Reinhardt) until this group,” he says. “But one thing I was able to bring was a knowledge of transcribing music from recordings, making chord charts for the band. There was a lot of work initially, studying this music and honing in on the finer details.
“I’ve always had a love for three-part harmony. The richness of the harmonies, the intricacies of the arrangements and at the same time making it down-to-earth music with these acoustic instruments — I thought it was fantastic. It was a new challenge, a different style than I’d ever played before.”
It may have been challenging to master, but one would never know it from the spotless cool of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” the Sweets’ 2006 debut. Its 15 tracks cover a wide range of standards in the Boswell Sisters style, reviving a folkloric menagerie of colorfully timeless rogues. Minnie the Moocher (a Cab Calloway creation bedecked in suspicious white on a “Wedding Day” set by tunesmiths Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), Willie the Weeper, Smokey Joe, and Charlie Two-Step jive and preen anew over arrangements kept sultry by the irresistable Bernard/Michell/Sutherland trio; even as a united front, they coo with a cool intimacy. Horns and strings add wow and zing, with dots of effervescent clarinet. Reliably steering the drive are Brush’s slap work on bass and the steady navigation of Krebs and Langenese.
“We’re the rhythm section and there’s a strong need for constant and very rigorous swing rhythms,” Langenese says of the guitar’s role. “When the girls are taking a break from singing, one of us will drop out and improvise a solo. Of course, the music we’re working with is harmonically coming out of the 1920s and ’30s, so we’re not using modern voicings. We’re not putting on advanced harmonic extensions to the chords. What we do is designed to evoke the feeling of the music from that era.
“That would also hold true for when we’re improvising: we’re sticking to simple melodies, and the inspiration is coming from Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Oscar Moore.”
All the Sweets’ inspirations returned on a 2009 follow-up, “Sleepytime in Chinatown,” with one additional voice: their own. The disc is evenly split between interpretations and originals, and the blend is uncannily perfect. (“Pete’s really good at writing in that style,” Langenese offers. “He has a real knack for it, especially lyrically.”)
This time the group approached the recording process as an extension of their live show, nailing nearly every track in one take, with minimal reliance on overdubs. The sessions were long, but all told, the band spent less than a week in the studio. “It was an exhausting but exhilarating experience,” Langenese says. “That album came out sounding exactly like we’d like it to be” — in this case, all the fire a sextet can pack within “Sleepytime’s” matchbook-replica packaging.
The response to The Stolen Sweets’ reverent and energetic take on a jazz style that last saw prominence during the throes of a Great Depression has been tremendous. They’ve been feted by Oregon Public Broadcasting as “Best of Oregon Art Beat” and have burned footlights supporting the likes of Pink Martini, The Hot Club of Cowtown, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers.
In 2007, they were selected to headline the Boswell Sisters Centennial in New Orleans. They returned to the city in January to perform at the venerable Preservation Hall, an honor Langenese still regards with awe.
“It’s one of those gigs I’ll never forget,” he says. “We felt really, really fortunate to have been invited there. That room has a wonderful vibe and the audience is welcoming. I think that’s how New Orleans has always felt to us in general: a very vibrant, alive and welcoming place.”
So what keeps this music just as vibrant and alive?
“It’s timeless because it strikes a balance between different styles,” Langenese explains. “It was pop music in its time, but it’s also coming from a jazz style. I think any kind of vocal music is going to be more appealing to the listener because of the human connection; the three-part harmonies are always going to have a universal appeal. We’ve got people of all ages at our shows for that reason: It’s just good music. It appeals to everyone.”